Ethiopia's Tigray conflict undermines AU's work, says Thabo Mbeki lecture speaker

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  • Delivering the Thabo Mbeki lecture, Professor 'Funmi Olonisakin said while the African Union has all the structures, it lacks the power and the will to implement them.
  • The AU's failure to intervene in a meaningful way in the Ethiopian conflict undermines its own peace and security agenda.
  • The AU has similarly failed to hold other member states accountable when they go against the AU's own norms and standards.  


The war in Ethiopia's Tigray region is evidence of the shortcomings of the African Union, according to 'Funmi Olonisakin, a professor of security, leadership and development at King's College in London.

Olonisakin was the keynote speaker of this year's Thabo Mbeki lecture.

READ | US hits Ethiopia with sanctions over Tigray War

Held virtually on 25 May, Africa Day, Olonisakin warned that alongside the celebrations of unity and pride, it was time to reckon with the shortcomings of the organisation, founded on this day more than half a century ago.

"The time has come for some honest stock-taking," said Olonisakin, who is also the founding director of the university's African Leadership Centre.

A failure in Tigray

READ | Red Cross condemns 'horrific' sexual violence in Ethiopia's Tigray

The international body is headquartered in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, yet the AU has been unable to intervene in the conflict that threatens to destabilise the horn of Africa.

These characteristics of the conflict, said Olonisakin, challenge the very fundamental principles of the AU - to maintain peace and security and intervene in humanitarian crises.

The conflict has raged on for more than six months, after the former liberation movement turned ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) held elections in its stronghold, the Tigray province, in defiance of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in  September 2020.

Abiy sent troops to the region, labelling the TPLF a rebel force threatening Ethiopia's law and order. Ethiopian troops were bolstered by a hidden force of Eritrean soldiers, making the conflict an international situation.

The ongoing conflict has been marked by allegations of war crimes, and the systematic starvation of the region. More than five million people are in need of humanitarian aid in Tigray, but aid agencies say soldiers have made it nearly impossible to reach the area.

While international actors tried to intervene, like the US which sent an envoy to the region and imposed sanctions on individuals involved on the crisis, the African Union failed to publicly act, said Olonisakin.

"We might be watching with our arms folded the largest humanitarian disaster unfolding on our continent in a while," she said.

"It is one thing not to act, it is another to be indifferent when the world tries to help. Thus far, there is no credible or legitimate African institution to deal, even informally, with the international community on the question of the humanitarian crisis in Tigray."

Ahmed has rebuffed any mediation attempts by the AU, and has failed to reach any consequential agreements with envoys sent to meet him.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was the head of the AU when the crisis in Ethiopia began, raised concerns about the violence, but would not put the issue on the agenda of a special AU summit in December, for fear of jeopardising delicate talks.

That position endures, with the new AU chairperson, President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Felix Tshisekedi. In the absence of any tangible action, the US has urged the AU to play a greater role in trying to quell the conflict.

AU ignoring its own peace agenda

While most of the continent is peaceful, the AU seems unable to demand accountability among members who threaten to destabilise the region.

It failed to impose or enact sanctions on Chad and Mali when the governments were changed without a democratic vote.

In the Sahel, international actors like France are exerting more influence in a conflict that has sucked in at least five countries.

"Africa has a peace agenda, a blueprint for peace, which consists of the things we said we would do to sustain peace nearly a generation ago," Olonisakin said.

The African Union may have the headquarters, symbols and laws to convey its message, but it does not have the power, influence and relationships to exert the changes laid out in its own conventions.

"Africa's peace agenda is profoundly insecure as a result of deep flaws in its leadership infrastructure," said Olonisakin.

The continental approach used to be one of non-intervention, respecting the sovereignty of member states as a result of the invasive colonial agenda. That shifted with the 2020 vision of "Silencing the Guns" - an ambitious 2013 declaration by the African Union.  

That vision was supposed to be enacted by member states and the AU's steering body, the AU commission, but member states are able to simply ignore the African Union's commission, without consequences.

"The evidence today suggests that the guns are far from being silent," said Olonisakin.

"From Mozambique to Tigray and Chad, the guns continue to blaze and blight our development."

The Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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